Kevin Gorman: Upcoming stretch a litmus test for Pirates |
Kevin Gorman, Columnist

Kevin Gorman: Upcoming stretch a litmus test for Pirates

Kevin Gorman
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Pirates’ Kevin Newman is mobbed by teammates after defeating the Padres on a bases loaded base on balls during the 11th inning Sunday, June 23, 2019, at PNC Park.

In one breath, Clint Hurdle called it one of the best wins he’s watched in nine years as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. In another, he downplayed the importance of one game.

They overcame four deficits, including three-run margins in the ninth and 11th innings, before Kevin Newman’s full-count, bases-loaded walk for an 11-10 victory over the San Diego Padres on Sunday at PNC Park.

That the Pirates got a walk-off walk win — say that three times fast — for a sweep was momentous, if not monumental.

No matter what Hurdle said.

“I think we get way too caught up in momentum,” Hurdle said. “We won the game. We’ve got to go out and play Houston, against one of the best clubs in baseball. We feel good about ourselves. I don’t think we would’ve felt less about ourselves one way or the other after today’s game. I really don’t.

“Always better to win.”

It’s certainly preferable to the alternative.

The Pirates needed this win and this series sweep. This homestand could serve as the turning point of their season, winning four of five after taking two of three in Miami.

“Momentum’s huge in this game,” first baseman Josh Bell said. “You don’t take nothing for granted.”

The Pirates should know better than to inflate the importance of one win — or even winning six of eight when those wins come against three teams with losing records.

“You don’t want to overreact to a good five- or 10-game stretch, and you don’t want to overreact to a not-so-good five- or 10-game stretch,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said, “but this is an important stretch of games for us against teams that we’re chasing.”

The Pirates are about to embark on a 13-game stretch against some of baseball’s better teams. It starts with a six-game road trip, beginning Tuesday against Gerrit Cole and the Houston Astros (49-30), who are in first place in the AL West. That is followed by three games at Milwaukee (42-36), which is in second in the NL Central. The Pirates return home to play the Chicago Cubs and Brewers before the All-Star break.

“It’s the next trip, and it’s two really good teams — both that were in the playoffs last year,” Hurdle said. “I don’t think I can encapsulate it any more than that: two playoff-contending teams that we’re going to go and play on the road. I’m looking forward to the opportunity and the challenge.”

Answers like those from Huntington and Hurdle make you wonder if the Pirates front office and coaching staff believe in this team as much as the players do. If their answers seem skeptical, maybe it’s because they have watched this team through its ups and downs this season.

That’s especially true after they fell from first place to last place in the NL Central, after they lost 19 times in a 26-game span and after they endured a seven-game losing streak.

But the losing helped the Pirates believe they can win.

And believe they still can contend.

“This was a big sweep for us,” said catcher Jacob Stallings, who scored the winning run after a two-RBI single to left in the 11th. “During that seven-game losing streak, it felt like we were really far off, but we’re really not that far off in the division. We’re still within striking distance, and all the guys know that and with our hitting and our pitching, we feel like we can win any given day, so we’re always ready.

“It’s definitely harder when you’ve lost seven in a row to remember that. But I think this series is a testament to this team.”

This team is a testament to not giving up on a season that could have been lost long ago.

On one hand, the Pirates have endured an unbelievable amount of injuries to key position players and pitchers. On the other, they are tied for last place because they didn’t hit in April and couldn’t pitch in May.

“When you list off everything that this club’s had work against it — some self-created, myself included, some not self-created — and to still be within a good two-week run of a division lead and some very good teams ahead of us, it speaks to the resilience and it speaks to what could come together,” Huntington said. “Now, we have to make it come together.

“We have a stretch of really interesting games going into the All-Star break. Now would be a good time to play really well and to close the gap and put us in a good spot.”

The resiliency shouldn’t be overlooked. The Pirates didn’t spend to solve their problems. They took the cheap route and tried to find the answers from within, relying on minor-leaguers, only to find out many of them weren’t ready. They got lucky that some of their rookies are better than expected.

That starts with Bryan Reynolds, who had an RBI single in the ninth and scored the first of four runs in the 11th. It continues with Newman, whose hesitation to throw allowed Fernando Tatis Jr. to score from third on a pop fly to second. But Newman showed incredible patience in working a full count, then taking a full-count ball four with two outs to walk in the winning run.

It was one game, but it was a wild walk-off walk win.

And, with momentum going into an important stretch, winning should be paramount for the Pirates.

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Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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